“24:” An Argument for why TV’s Third Golden Age is not Restricted to Cable

–Nathan Blake

Much has been written in response to the belief, popularized by Brett Martin, that television has had three golden ages; the most recent of which consists of long form TV, primarily on cable. It is understandable to believe that the networks have contributed little in terms of the increased quality of scripted TV in the past 16 years. Most of the offerings by NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX in recent memory has consisted of derivative medical dramas, cop shows, Friends-esque sitcoms (The Big Bang Theory in particular) and, most recently, a new wave of comic book adaptations such as Marvel’s Agents of Shield and Gotham. A few exceptions since 1999 bear mentioning though and deserve at least a modicum of credit for the TV renaissance. There is Lost, perhaps the most polarizing network show of the last two decades, along with Friday Night Lights and Scandal. But the earliest example is probably FOX’s 24; a blood pressure raising, real-time spin on three types of thriller genres: Political, espionage and action.

The show, whose first season focused on a plot to assassinate a presidential candidate, arrived at the best, and worst, possible time for a series whose pilot included the bombing of a plane and terrorist subplots. It premiered on FOX mere weeks after the 9/11 attacks. But instead of American viewers being too uncomfortable to sit through such imagery week after week, when similar real life anxieties about chemical, biological and nuclear terrorist plots played out on the nightly news, audiences slowly warmed up to the show. What made this even more unlikely was the show’s demanding format; that a story would play out over an entire twenty four episode season, in real time. The series lasted for 8 regular seasons and a made for TV movie that aired between seasons 6 and 7. And while the series wrapped up in 2010, it has returned once up to this point in the form of a 12 episode season titled 24: Live Another Day that aired in summer 2014 and was received with critical acclaim. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/24/6696/. There is even talk that the show will be back for one or more shortened installments in the near future. http://insidetv.ew.com/2015/01/17/fox-24-kiefer-sutherland/ Whether or not 24 returns for more real-time action, the show’s controversial depiction of torture and the tortured nature of its protagonist Jack Bauer earned it a place among the third golden age’s finest dramas.

The importance of Jack Bauer to the success of 24 should not be overlooked. In an interview with NPR, Brett Martin emphasizes just how much the success of shows such as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad relies on a complex anti-hero who often commits appalling acts but is cared for enough by audiences that they will tune in for every new episode to watch, and even root for, that character to meet his goals. http://www.npr.org/2013/06/30/197229894/the-difficult-men-who-propel-serial-tv Jack Bauer is unique among the third golden age of television as he occupies that space between hero and anti-hero. While his violent acts are far more justified than those of Tony Soprano, since Jack usually commits them not only to protect his own family but also the lives of millions of innocent civilians threatened by terrorism, there is something inherently evil about his methods. But such a judgment on Jack’s willingness to commit and creativity in carrying out torture also depends on each viewer’s politics. Depictions of torture on 24 evolved from season to season just as the debate over torture in post-9/11 government policy evolved year to year.

Early seasons of the show featured the occasional scene of torture, often at high points of tension in the twenty four episode story arc, but as the show went on the depictions became more intense and there was a shift away from psychological methods of coercion towards brutal physical damage. An example of psychological torture from season one features Jack interrogating a businessman named Cofell while posing as his limo driver. When more mundane efforts of coercion fail, Jack threatens to shove a towel down Cofell’s throat, let his stomach begin digesting the cloth and then yank it back up his esophagus. Jack describes in vivid detail how the act would tear Cofell’s stomach lining and cause him to bleed to death in agony (Day One, 10:00 a.m.-11:00 a.m.). In season 2, Jack forces a terror suspect to watch the execution of his child, and threatens to have the victim’s sibling executed too. After the suspect talks, it is revealed that neither child was executed and the event was staged (Day Two, 7:00 p.m.-8:00 p.m.). These psychological methods of torture are harrowing enough for viewers to watch play out, but it turned out that these were mere warnings to prepare viewers for what would come later. Between days four through six, the frequency and intensity of torture increases each season. While Jack had mercy enough not to cause physical harm to the relatives of terrorists during the aforementioned scene in Day Two, the traumas from subsequent seasons result in a change of attitude by the middle of day five. While interrogating Henderson, a former head of the Counter Terrorist Unit’s Field Operations, Jack realizes the stubborn man is not going to disclose any information, so he abruptly turns his gun on Henderson’s wife. He shoots her just above the knee and warns Henderson that if he doesn’t talk, he will shoot her in the knee cap shortly (Day Five 5:00 p.m.-6:00 p.m.). This increase in the severity and frequency of torture began to upset fans and critics, who felt the show was relying on this particular plot device too often and condoning torture as a reliable and justifiable tool in combating terrorism. Just before the premiere of the seventh season in early 2009, The Independent published an article summarizing the series, its popularity, its controversies and its impending return to the airwaves. It also featured this staggering statistic: during the first five seasons of the series, one out of every two episodes featured a torture scene. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/jacks-backthe-clock-ticks-for-24s-antihero-1027348.html.

What was even more frustrating to some was the attitude of the series’ creators, who claimed the torture depicted on the show was not meant as a comment, from any political view point, on the politics of the war on terror. Joel Surnow once stated in an interview that “[he and co-creator Robert Cochran] construct our stories based on “what’s happening to the characters in a particular episode, and how they respond to the demands of their own personal challenges.” http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/22/arts/television/22gree.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 Yet, possibly in light of criticism over the amount of torture on the show, its writers began season 7 with an interesting twist: Jack would be called to answer for many of his acts of torture, particularly those depicted in season 6, at a senate hearing on torture. Jack is later called back into action to foil another terrorist plot, but this time everyone from the FBI to a reinvented C.T.U. are constantly watching him to make sure he doesn’t torture. Of course, true to Jack’s nature, he does eventually torture and by the end of the season even converts an idealistic FBI agent named Renee Walker (Annie Wersching) to adopt his methods. Still, the torture in season 7, at least those acts committed by those fighting for good, are very mild compared to previous seasons. That trend reverses in day 8, a season that caps the series’ original run with perhaps its best argument against torture as well as its best case for the show’s inclusion with other TV golden age juggernauts. When the season opens, we discover Renee has been fired from the FBI after nearly torturing a suspect to death. Jack, once again dragged out of retirement by C.T.U., enlists her help to foil another plot, this time against IRK President Omar Hassan. After the operation to protect Hassan fails, Jack quits C.T.U. one last time and spends an intimate afternoon with Renee, who is shortly thereafter murdered by a Russian sniper. Throughout the last six episodes of the season, Jack sets out on a brutal mission of revenge. He is not acting in the interests of the U.S., in fact, his murderous acts against Russia only serve to increase tensions. But his desire for revenge, complete with his government training and history of torture, make his rampage incredibly difficult to stop. This story arc could be interpreted as a warning about what happens when the toll that torture and violence take on an individual and a culture finally reaches a breaking point. The series ends with Jack being forced to leave the country or suffer a certain life sentence, if not death penalty, for crimes against the governments of two superpowers. Having earned the title of anti-hero, still having our sympathy but also our recognition that he needs to be punished, Jack is left with no option but to run, forever, and leave his family. His banishment is as fitting as Walter White’s death at his own hand. Like many of the anti-heroes of the TV golden age, the viewers understand why Jack committed the unspeakable acts during the series’ run, but we are also left wondering, and often concluding, that there had to be a better way.

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